Green Card Holders and Legal Immigration to the United States
While much of the political discussion surrounding immigration in the United States focuses on the roughly 11 million to 11.5 million unauthorized immigrants residing across the nation, border security, and highly contested state-level immigration legislation, it's easy to forget that the majority of the country's immigrants are lawful permanent residents and U.S. citizens. As of January 2011, an estimated 13.1 million green card holders resided in the United States, about 8.5 million of whom were eligible to naturalize as citizens.
This Spotlight examines the 2011 statistics on foreign nationals admitted for and adjusted to lawful permanent residence (LPR). This Spotlight uses data from the Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, one of the most commonly used publications on U.S. immigration statistics, published by the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Office of Immigration Statistics (OIS).
The Yearbook presents inflow statistics on foreign nationals who, during a fiscal year:
- were granted lawful permanent residence (i.e., immigrants);
- applied for and/or were granted refugee/asylee status;
- were admitted on a temporary basis (i.e., nonimmigrants);
- acquired U.S. citizenship (i.e., naturalized).
Note: all yearly data is for the government's fiscal year (October 1 through September 30). All data are from OIS unless otherwise noted.
- According to U.S. immigration law, immigrants are persons lawfully admitted for permanent residence in the United States.
- The law provides for four general immigrant categories: family reunification, employment sponsorship, humanitarian cases (refugee and asylum adjustments), and diversity immigrants.
- The total yearly inflow of immigrants in these categories is composed of both new arrivals to the United States and status adjusters.
- The number of new arrivals remained relatively stable at about 420,000 annually between 1986 and 2011.
- In 2011, more than 1 million people were granted lawful permanent resident status.
- Family reunification accounted for 65 percent of all lawful permanent immigration in 2011.
- Employment-preference immigrants made up 13 percent of all lawful permanent immigration in 2011.
- In 2011, about 16 percent of all lawful permanent residents were status adjusters who entered as refugees or asylees.
- About 50,000 foreign-born residents receive green cards yearly as diversity immigrants.
- The U.S. Department of State received more than 7.9 million qualified applications for the 2013 green card lottery, down from around 14.8 million for the 2012 lottery.
- There were about 16,000 "other immigrants" in 2011.
- Mexico, China, India, the Philippines, and the Dominican Republic were the top five countries of birth of new lawful permanent residents in 2011.
- California, New York, Florida, Texas, New Jersey, and Illinois were the key destinations for LPRs in 2011.
- In 2011, an estimated 8.5 million lawful permanent residents were eligible for naturalization, up from 8.1 million in 2010.
According to U.S. immigration law, immigrants are persons lawfully admitted for permanent residence in the United States.
Also known as green-card holders, immigrants are persons lawfully admitted for permanent residence in the United States and who have the right to reside, work, study, and own property in the United States. In contrast, foreign students, H-1B workers, and tourists are part of the large category of temporary nonimmigrant admissions.
The law provides for four general immigrant categories: family reunification, employment sponsorship, humanitarian cases (refugee and asylum adjustments), and diversity immigrants.
The majority of people who wish to obtain lawful permanent residence (LPR) or a green card in the United States qualify because they are family members of a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident, foreigners with needed job skills, refugees or asylum seekers who have been granted protection in the United States, or foreigners from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States (i.e., diversity immigrants).
The total yearly inflow of immigrants in these categories is composed of both new arrivals to the United States and status adjusters.
The number of all immigrants admitted to the country shown in the immigration statistics tables below consists of two different flows. One is newly arrived lawful permanent residents — people who were issued immigrant visas overseas by the Department of State. The other is status adjusters — people who enter the United States with one legal status and then adjust to permanent residence while in the country.
A person, for example, might arrive in the United States on an H-1B temporary worker visa. If her company chooses to sponsor her for permanent residence, the employer can petition U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) for a green card on behalf of the worker under an employment-preference visa. If she meets the criteria and if annual, numerical ceilings for employment-preference visas and per-country limits have not been met, she would receive a card stating she is lawfully admitted for permanent residence. She would then be counted as a status adjuster for that year.
The number of new arrivals remained relatively stable at about 420,000 annually between 1986 and 2011.
Although the number of adjustments has greatly varied between 1986 and 2011, the number of new arrivals has remained relatively stable with about 420,000 on average per year (see Figure 1). Changes in immigration legislation, application and visa processing times, and backlogs at the former Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and the current USCIS are primarily responsible for wide fluctuations in the total numbers.
In 2011, more than 1 million people were granted lawful permanent resident status.
There were 1,062,040 immigrants who were granted legal residence in 2011. Of those, 481,948 (45 percent) were new arrivals who entered the country in 2011, and 580,092 (55 percent) were status adjusters. The status adjusters arrived in the United States before 2011, but their green card applications were approved during 2011.
Family reunification accounted for 65 percent of all lawful permanent immigration in 2011.
Immigrants who obtained green cards as spouses, children under the age of 21, or parents of U.S. citizens (453,158); or as immediate family of lawful permanent residents and certain other family members of U.S. citizens (234,931) accounted for 65 percent of all lawful permanent immigrants (see Figure 2). During the last decade, family-based immigration has accounted for about two-thirds of total lawful permanent immigration.
Employment-preference immigrants made up 13 percent of all lawful permanent immigration in 2011.
The 139,339 immigrants who received green cards through sponsorship from their U.S. employers accounted for 13 percent of all LPRs.
The share of employment-preference immigrants is significantly smaller than that of family-based immigrants and, in the past decade, has varied between 12 percent (81,714) in 2003 and 22 percent (246,865) in 2005 (see Figure 2).
Similar to past trends, immediate family members accounted for more than half of employment-based immigrants in 2011: 53 percent (or 74,071) of employment-sponsored immigrants were spouses and children of principal applicants.
In 2011, about 16 percent of all lawful permanent residents were status adjusters who entered as refugees or asylees.
(Note: these figures refer to those refugees and asylees who adjusted their status to lawful permanent resident in 2011. They do not refer to the numbers and percentages of refugee and asylum applicants granted refugee or asylum status in 2011. Read more on the latter here.).
The 113,045 refugees and 55,415 asylees who adjusted their status to LPR in 2011 constituted 16 percent of all lawful permanent immigrants.
The number and percentage of refugee and asylee adjustments of status varied significantly between 2001 and 2011, from a low of 6 percent (44,764) in 2003 to a high of 17 percent (216,454) in 2006 (see Figure 2).
Refugees are required to adjust to LPR status after one year of residence in the United States. Asylees are eligible to apply for LPR status after one year of being granted asylum status. Until 2005, there was a limit of 10,000 asylee adjustments per year. The REAL ID Act of 2005 (enacted into law in May 2005) eliminated this numerical limit. The number of asylee adjustments in 2011 (55,415) was more than five times higher than in 2002 (10,197).
About 50,000 foreign-born residents receive green cards yearly as diversity immigrants.
Each year the U.S. government grants lawful permanent residence to a select number of applicants around the world with its green card lottery (http://travel.state.gov/visa/immigrants/types/types_1322.html) — officially known as the Diversity Visa Lottery, or DV Lottery — run by the U.S. Department of State. In 2011, 50,103 people received LPR status as diversity immigrants, representing 5 percent of the 1 million new LPRs.
The Immigration Act of 1990 established the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program (the green card lottery) to allow entry to immigrants from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States. No more than 55,000 diversity visas are made available each fiscal year. Of the 55,000 visas, 5,000 must be used for applicants under the Nicaraguan and Central America Relief Act of 1997, thus reducing the available number for most applicants to 50,000.
The visas are divided among six geographic regions — Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, Oceania, and South/Central America and the Caribbean — with no single country receiving more than 7 percent of the available diversity visas in any one year. Nationals of countries with high rates of immigration to the United States are not eligible to participate. For the purposes of DV 2013 lottery, excluded countries were Bangladesh, Brazil, Canada, China (mainland-born, excluding Hong Kong S.A.R., Macau S.A.R., and Taiwan), Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, India, Jamaica, Mexico, Pakistan, Peru, the Philippines, South Korea, United Kingdom (except Northern Ireland) and its dependent territories, and Vietnam. Poland, on the other hand, was added back to the list of eligible countries for the DV-2013 lottery.
Before receiving permission to immigrate to the United States, lottery winners must provide proof of a high school education or its equivalent, or show two years of work experience within the past five years in an occupation that requires at least two years of training or experience. They must also pass a medical exam.
The U.S. Department of State received more than 7.9 million qualified applications for the 2013 green card lottery, down from around 14.8 million for the 2012 lottery.
Overall interest in the DV lottery is significantly higher than the 50,000 available visas, but each year the application number varies depending on which countries are eligible. For instance, more than 7.9 million qualified applications were registered between October 4, 2011 and November 5, 2011 for the DV-2013 program (or 12.6 million including spouses and minor children listed on the applications). While an impressive amount, that number is significantly lower than the 14.8 million entries registered a year earlier (or 19.7 million with dependents). The 46 percent drop in qualified applications between DV-2012 (14.8 million) and DV-2013 (7.9 million) was almost exclusively due to the exclusion of one country — Bangladesh — from the list of eligible countries (in 2012, Bangladeshis accounted for 7.7 million of the total 14.8 million applications).
There were about 16,000 "other immigrants" in 2011.
Less numerous groups of immigrants, including persons and their dependents who legalized under the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986, parolees, and children born to LPRs abroad, are examples of "other immigrants" who are eligible for LPR status. In 2011, there were 16,049 "other immigrants" who accounted for 2 percent of all lawful permanent immigrants.
Mexico, China, India, the Philippines, and the Dominican Republic were the top five countries of birth of new lawful permanent residents in 2011.
The top five countries of birth — Mexico, China, India, the Philippines, and the Dominican Republic — accounted for 38 percent of all persons who received LPR status in 2011. Nationals of the next five countries — Cuba, Vietnam, Korea, Colombia and Haiti — comprised another 13 percent of all LPRs. In all, the top 10 leading countries of birth made up 51 percent of the total (see Table 1).
As in 2002, the top 20 countries of birth in 2011 accounted for about two-thirds of all LPRs (see Table 1). Fifteen of the 20 countries on the list in 2011 were also on the 2002 list. Bosnia-Herzegovina, Ukraine, Russia, United Kingdom, and Guatemala dropped off the list, while Iraq, Bangladesh, Burma, Peru, and Ethiopia joined it.
California, New York, Florida, Texas, New Jersey, and Illinois were the key destinations for LPRs in 2011.
California was the intended state of residence for 20 percent of the 1 million new LPRs in 2011. Other leading states of intended residence included New York (14 percent), Florida (10 percent), Texas (9 percent), New Jersey (5 percent), and Illinois (4 percent). The top 10 states of destination — which also included Massachusetts, Virginia, Georgia, and Maryland — accounted for 72 percent of all LPR destinations (see Figure 3).
In 2011, an estimated 8.5 million lawful permanent residents were eligible for naturalization, up from 8.1 million in 2010.
According to the latest available OIS estimates, there were 13,070,000 LPRs residing in the United States as of January 1, 2011. Of them, 8,530,000 were eligible to naturalize.
The Yearbook of Immigration Statistics and Annual Flow Report. Available Online.
USCIS, "Estimates of the Legal Permanent Resident Population in 2011." Available Online.
Definitions of terms can be found at the website of the Office of Immigration Statistics. Available Online.
Diversity Visa Lottery 2007-2013 Results. Available Online.